Hillel: Jews on Campus

A changing organization for a changing student body.

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In spring 2003, during the height of the Second Intifada, pro-Israel students at the University of California-San Diego handed out condoms on campus that read, “Israel: It’s still safe to come.” This provocative–and popular–Israel advocacy tool was part of a larger UCSD Hillel campaign entitled “Got Israel?” The condoms also included information that compared sexual freedom and women’s rights in Israel to those in other Middle Eastern countries.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus LifeThroughout its history, Hillel has strived to make contact–a lasting, meaningful contact–with Jewish college students. The “Got Israel?” campaign is just one of several techniques developed by Hillel in its colorful and sometimes controversial campaign to engage a Jewish student population in a social marketplace that’s stuffed full with spiritual and cultural options. The techniques are new, but the sentiment is not. In a way, it’s what Hillel has been doing since its inception.

An Unusual Good Samaritan

For a Jewish organization, Hillel had an unusual beginning. It was conceived in 1923 by Dr. Edward Chauncey Baldwin, a liberal Protestant and professor of biblical literature at the University of Illinois. According to historian Winton Solberg, Baldwin believed that the Jews “had been preserved to contribute further to the spiritual life of the modern world.” Disturbed by what he perceived as an overwhelming ignorance among Jewish students of their heritage, Baldwin approached Jewish leaders, asking them to address the problem of young people who, according to Solberg, “were moving out of Jewish life in terrifying numbers.”

At the same time, others in the local Jewish community saw the need to reach out to the growing Jewish student population at the University of Illinois. Isaac Kuhn, a successful clothier in Champaign, and several other Jewish figures banded together with Baldwin to engage the growing population of Jewish students at the university.

The Rise, Decline, and Rebirth of Hillel

Later in 1923, Baldwin and Kuhn approached Benjamin Frankel, a young, charismatic Reform student rabbi at Sinai Temple in Champaign. Frankel eagerly agreed to their proposition to serve simultaneously as the town’s rabbi and as the religious adviser to the university’s Jewish students.

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Preston Neal, an L.A.-based freelance writer, was the 2007-2008 Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow for Hillel at Binghamton University. He holds a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies with High Honors from Brandeis University.

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